New York City FC were the only MLS team to win their opening CONCACAF Champions League match this week. The time of the competition and that it features in preseason is having an impact.
The age-old North American onslaught on the CONCACAF Champions League begun again this week. No Major League Soccer team has won the competition since its restructuring in 2008. It is a well-known fact.
What is even more alarming is that only three teams have made it to the final and only seven others have made it to the semi-finals. All in all, that is 44 semi-final berths and only ten of them occupied by MLS-based teams. Liga MX, the dominant league in the region, on the other hand, boasts 29 of the 44 semi-finalists.
When it comes to comparing MLS to its Mexican counterpart, there has always been a rather large disparity in quality. The CCL was always a key indication of the chasm between the two leagues. But as of late, the gap has narrowed. It is yet to yield strong results in the CCL, at least not on a consistent basis, but in the transfer market, based on the commercial side of the sport, and the overall quality of the players performing, MLS is catching up, if somewhat slowly.
That led to many believing that this year would be the league’s best chance of producing a CCL winner. Even with Toronto FC not winning the Canadian Championship, the Montreal Impact are still a high-level side to be the worst of the five teams MLS qualifies. Seattle are the MLS Cup winners, New York City have a complete team and won the East last year, Atlanta United won the Campeones Cup, beating Club America in the process and boast unique talent, while Los Angeles FC might be the best of the lot.
But if this first week of CCL action is anything to go by, such thoughts of an MLS surge have been quickly and substantially put to bed. The MLS teams were not entirely outplayed by their opposition, and none of them are completely out of their respective ties ahead of the second leg next week, by the going was tougher than expected for many.
Atlanta United were only able to draw against Motagua despite being heavy favourites, New York City FC, Montreal and Seattle all blew leads against inferior opposition, while LAFC were played off the park by Club Leon, who might be the best team in the entire competition. But there is a crucial factor that must be considered in this analysis: preseason fitness.
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These were the first competitive matches for all of the MLS teams. The regular season does not start for another week and they have done nothing but preseason preparation. And their lack of match-sharpness showed this week. Before the 62nd minute, MLS teams had an aggregate score of 9-3. After the 62nd minute, the aggregate score was 1-7.
Admittedly, the 62nd minute is an arbitrary point in the match, but the drastic change in form helps portray the picture rather clearly: MLS teams are not as fit as their opponents because they are not playing competitive matches.
This is not an excuse for these teams. They know the schedule. It is the same every year. It does not change, and it is something that they must deal with. But it is fair to argue that not starting the regular season and playing two or three matches before the CCL is harming these teams’ chances of progression in the early rounds.
LAFC, in particular, looked extremely laboured in the closing stages and conceded a crucial late goal as a result. NYCFC and Seattle were equally as tired, their decision-making beginning to breakdown as their bodies slouched. The only team to not concede in the final half-hour of action was Atlanta, and Frank de Boer put his team through their paces with a 90-minute run out against Guadalajara a week prior.
MLS teams are struggling in the CCL because of the timing of the competition. The evidence is irrefutable. And yet, it is still no excuse for the teams involved. They simply have to pucker up and deal with it.